For Kids With Special Needs, Going to the Dentist Doesn't Have to Be Scary

Bright lights, unfamiliar faces, funny smells, strange tastes and a chair that moves — these are just a few of the things that can make a visit to the dentist a little unsettling. Parents tell us that dental visits can be some of the most challenging experiences for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other special needs, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Based on a 2010 Smile Survey, we know that 40 percent of elementary school children have at least one cavity, and 15 percent have untreated decay. Deep cavities and toothaches can be a cause for behavioral outbursts. When a child’s teeth hurt it’s tough to sleep, concentrate and eat. Getting your child to the dentist can help him/her thrive in their daily life.

For children with special needs the challenges of a dental exam are unfamiliarity, unpredictability and physical invasiveness. Going to the dentist can be really stressful for parents and children, but if children can learn to allow a dentist to look in their mouth and sit in a dental chair, they are on the path to a lifetime of good oral health.

Good preparation for getting kids with special needs comfortable with the dentist focuses on gradually exposing children to the dental environment. So, what might that look like, you may be wondering.

In our center we begin with a tour of the office and introductions of the dental team. Then we discuss strategies to help the child tolerate a dental exam. This might include turning out the lights, selecting a private room, examining the child in a non-dental chair, or bringing a comfort object from home that the child really responds to. Rewards such as getting to go out to a favorite meal, a token for our prize machine and iPad time can help motivate the child to receive an exam.

Most children do best with several short (20 minutes) visits. An example might be:

  • 1. Clinic tour and structured interview
  • 2. Enter the dental operatory
  • 3. Sit in the dental chair and ride up/down
  • 4. Allow the dentist to brush their teeth
  • 5. Full dental exam

Some children progress more quickly. Others take more time. It all depends on the individual. The key is allowing children to progress at their own pace and making the dental clinic part of a routine.

Here are a few tips to help you prepare your child with special needs for a trip to the dentist:

  • Brush the teeth at least once daily. If you are able to brush more often, excellent!
  • Fluoride in toothpaste is one of the best tools we have to fight decay. Experiment with different brands and flavors to find one that your child likes. If your child is not able to tolerate the taste or texture of the paste, you can try dipping the toothbrush in a fluoride-containing mouth rinse-it won’t be as foamy.
  • Incorporate oral care into daily life. Make it part of the home routine, and consider requesting that it be added to your child’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) during school time. 
  • Minimize the number of snacks that your child has during the day. Children who eat frequently are more likely to get cavities. Drinks and snacks that contain sugar are also likely to cause cavities when consumed outside of meal times. Some recommendations for good snacks are: fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, cold cut meats, nuts and plain popcorn. If you use treats as rewards, try substituting sugar-free versions of the foods your child enjoys. 
  • Make oral health part of your daily routine. If your child benefits from visual cues, consider adding a toothbrushing graphic. For children who utilize iPad or iTouch devices, there are a few apps which may prove helpful. “Off We Go to the Dentist” and “My Healthy Smile” are a couple that help prepare children for dental visits and encourage positive oral hygiene habits.
  • Sometimes the bathroom may not be the best place to brush. Try having your child lie down so you have a better view of the teeth. This can be done very effectively in their own bed or on the living room floor.
  • Complete much of the required paperwork in advance of an office visit to save time once you get to the office.
  • Start dental visits early, at about age 1, and make it regular part of your child’s health care.

You know your child best, so don’t be afraid to offer the dentist tips that you think may make the visit easier for your child. They will appreciate it!

In Seattle you can contact the Center for Pediatric Dentistry at 206-543-5800 or visit us online


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